In 1919 a returning World War I veteran named Harry Hahn and his French war bride attempted to sell what they thought was a painting by Leonardo da Vinci in New York. The renowned art dealer, Sir Joseph Duveen declared the picture – La Belle Ferronniere – a fake without ever seeing the canvas. The Hahns sued Duveen for slander, setting off a legal battle that would last for decades, in the course of which art authentication was forever changed. But that is another paper.
The fun part of the Hahn story is the back story about Harry Hahn himself. In 1917 he enlisted in the army, serving first in Texas and then in France. Although he boasted that he was a highly decorated captain and an aviator, there is reason to suppose he was actually a sergeant and a mechanic. In 1919 he married a French girl named Andree Ladoux, who lived with her godmother, Josephine Massot, a milliner.
One of Josephine’s friends was an eccentric woman of dubious aristocracy named Louise de Montaut, whom Andree called her “aunt.” Mme de Montaut possessed a painting that she had always been told was by Leonardo da Vinci, and when Andree and Harry Hahn got married on July 12, 1919, she – amazingly – gave them this picture of potentially immense value as a wedding present. Although there is some reason to doubt that she ever actually gave it to the Hahns as a gift. From this point, the “facts” become even more tangled, and are very likely part truth and part myth.
Anyway, La Belle Ferronniere was brought to America, not by the Hahns when they returned to Junction City, Kansas, in 1919, where Harry became a car salesman, but by Mme de Montaut who arrived in New York June 1920. Even before the Hahns left France they had begun to make efforts to sell the painting in the U.S.
Only three days after Mme de Montaut and the painting arrived in America, Joseph Duveen received that famous early morning phone call from a reporter at the New York World who asked his opinion of the painting that had been offered to the Kansas City Art Institute for something like $250,000. Although he had never seen the Hahn picture, Duveen did not hesitate to declare it a fake, pointing out that the original was, after all, in the Louvre, and so this could be ONLY a copy.
The painting in the Louvre is a late 15th century portrait of a woman thought to be Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress of the Duke of Milan, or possibly his wife. Another of his mistresses, Cecilia Gallerani, is depicted by Leonardo as the Lady with an Ermine which we have seen on the cover of the Monuments Men book.
What a tangle. So the lawsuit between Duveen and the Hahns went on for years. By 1996 there were 29 leins worth almost $42 million on the painting. And this book, by John Brewer, has so much suffocating detail…Suffice it to say the names of Frank Glenn and Thomas Hart Benton are also part of the Kansas City story.
At the end of the day, amidst and as the result of all the intervening squabbling, the painting La Belle Ferronniere was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York City on January 28, 2010. There was lots of press surrounding the auction. According to Sotheby’s catalog,
“ recent technical examination of the infamous portrait including pigment analysis, indicates that the Hahn painting dates from the seventeenth century… thus confirming a previous scholarly opinion that it was not by Leonardo…although it might possibly have been painted by the French baroque painter Laurent de la Hyre.”
The presale estimate was $300,000-$500,000, and it actually sold at auction for $1,300,000 to an anonymous American private collector. Alan and I were among the many people who wanted to see it…and I will say it was a beautiful painting as you can see from the book cover.
And so our detour ends…its back to The Monuments Men.